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Van disappoints in “Astral Weeks” re-visit

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Review: “Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl,” Van Morrison

March 2, 2009

Me and “Astral Weeks” go way back. 1968. high school. The title track and “Madame George” enjoyed daily rotation on heavy underground FM radio station WNEW. I went out and bought the LP and after going through two vinyl copies before buying the CD, it has since been a constant companion throughout my life. Forty years and counting. I periodically revisit it at choice moments and it never fails to move me. Just reading the opening lines of “Astral Weeks” quoted in an Amazon review of the new disc caused me to choke up.

If I ventured in the slipstream

Between the viaducts of your dreams

Where the mobile steel rims crack

And the ditch and the back road stops

Could you find me?

Would you, kiss-a-my-eyes?

Lay me down

In silence easy

To be born again

Listening to it conjures images of skipping school to spend a sunny day getting high and hanging out at Bethesda fountain. The album was practically a spontaneous jam session, according to what’s been written since. The tracks were finalized after one or two takes over three days in the studio. Morrison recorded the album with session musicians that he never played with again, until recruiting one of them, guitarist Jay Berliner, to perform the album in its entirety (with a slightly changed song order) for two nights in November last year.

Bowing to 40 years of devotional fan pressure, he has assembled a crack group of musicians to ostensibly capture the original flavor of the studio album. Bassist David Hayes and drummer Robbie Ruggiero, plus numerous string and reed players, bring a musical accompaniment that does due justice to the sparse arrangements and the efforts of Hayes and Ruggiero’s counterparts on the original.

Van’s stream-of-consciousness vocalizing over a collection of songs he had written over the prior two years has been rightfully praised by critics, including ranking as high as No. 2 on several snobby pretentious “best of all time” lists that place rubbish like the Sex Pistols, “Never mind the bollocks.” ahead of “The Doors.” This was truly Van’s finest hour.

But I don’t come to praise “Astral Weeks,” I come to bury “Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl” (AW: LHB).

To much acclaim, the CD was released last week, and the film video on DVD is scheduled for imminent release.

My expectations couldn’t have been higher-until I heard a smidgen of the recording on an NPR news feature on the recording and concerts. I bought the CD immediately. Musically, instrumentally that is, it sounds just as I would have fantasized: the musicians all playing faithful to the spirit of the original. Like before but more.

There’s only one problem with this endeavor, and it’s a big one: Who’s the drunken karaoke singer slurring his way through the immortal lyrics? Is that really Van Morrison? If so, just what he is trying to convey? Virtually throughout the performance, Van dismisses the precious lyrics with contempt.

I am forced to consider the possibility that Van’s performance is intentional. It’s almost as if he’s acting out of spite for his audience. On the official web site, “Sweet Thing” is chosen as the featured video. If I had to pick one example of Van’s desecration of his masterpiece, I’d probably pick this tune. “Drunken karaoke” singer is not just rhetoric; at times you are forced to consider the possibility that he didn’t even bother to review the lyrics before the performance or had one too many Glenfiddichs, or both. This is not artistic license. This is bullshit.

The recording starts with the title song. Morrison dribbles out the lyrics monotone. At the end he falls into this, “I believe I’ve transcended” riff that he repeats several times. Sycophants have seized on this riff as something of a metaphor for the entire endeavor. In fact, it is tagged onto the song title on the album credits. He also does this with the newly renamed “Slim Slow Slider/I Start Breaking Down” and “Cyprus Avenue/You Came Walking Down.” Am I just being overly cynical in attributing this to some financial incentive? Read on.

Next up is “Beside You.” I always considered this the least musically interesting track on the original, but here it is given a more interesting reading. I’m not sure how to describe it; perhaps the melody is playing off the downbeat. Whatever it is, it finds a new groove, and I think, at least instrumentally, it actually improves on the original in this respect, and is one of the better tracks on the album.

The aforementioned “Slim Slow Slider” comes next, moved to the “In the Beginning” “Side 1” of the disc from its position as the last track on the original “Afterwards” section on the second side of the LP. Morrison has employed his artistic license, as is certainly his prerogative, to rearrange the order of the songs. The new, “I start breaking Down” section at the end of the tune provides one of the more absurd moments in AW: LHB. Van launches into a staccato strumming that reminds me of a heroined-out Jerry Garcia attempting to strum up excitement in “Sugaree” in some post-70s Grateful Dead show.

“Sweet Thing” follows, described above. Watch it for yourself, free, on vanmorrison.com, and see if I’m exaggerating.

The “Afterwards” section begins, as on the original, with “Young Lovers Do,” one of my favorites. Van grudgingly sleepwalks through the lyrics and dispatches the chorus, “Then we sat on our star and dreamed of the way.” as if it’s beneath him to even bother to enunciate the words. By comparison, the measure of how seriously the backing musicians treated the occasion can be gleaned from how the trumpet player perhaps intentionally hints at the sour notes on the original during the short and sweet horn break.

“Cyprus Avenue” followed by possibly the best track, “Ballerina,” are the only songs from “Astral Weeks” that have appeared with any regularity in Van’s repertoire over the ensuing years. Perhaps this familiarity is the reason why Morrison seems to have some interest in singing the lyrics to both. But what could possibly motivate Van to transmogrify the tender “Ballerina” lyric, “the light is on the left side of your head,” with a deliverance that positively shouts with passion on the original, into something. sinister?

“Madame George” is repositioned as the closing song, and it’s a shorter and less inspiring version than the original. And the mystery of why Van sings “Madame Joy” in a song titled “Madame George” remains. As does the identity of this apparently gender-confused character. In an interview with Don Imus during the last week in February, Van once again laughed off the question.

The disc has two bonus, non-“Astral Weeks” tracks: “Listen to the Lion/The Lion Speaks,” and “Common One.” The latter tune has never done much for me, but the former, with which I was unfamiliar, sounds better with each listening. It’s a keeper.

A CD, a DVD, and tickets for two more “Astral Weeks” performances in New York’s Beacon Theatre priced at up to $350-it’s no mystery as to the motivation for this endeavor. It’s just too bad that Van felt the need to spite his audience for forcing him to revisit his finest hour, when he was a young man of 23 and the world was pregnant with promise.

So, I give this recording 5 stars for the instrumental musicianship, 5 stars for. because it’s friggin’ “Astral Weeks” for godsakes!, and 2 stars for Van’s less-than-inspired vocal efforts, averaging out to 4 stars.

But I’ll still buy the DVD on the day it comes out. Only time will tell if AW: LHB permanently sullies my memories of the beautiful original. Ask me again in 40 years.

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